Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#72 – Chubby Cherub

An early third-party NES game featuring a fat angel? Why not?

Nice melody here!

To Beat: Finish Stage 12
Played: 1/21/18 – 1/30/18
Difficulty: 8/10
My Difficulty: 8/10
Video: Chubby Cherub Longplay

I know this is just me, but when people refer to an NES game as a bad game, it piques my curiosity. It’s tough to be objective about this sort of thing. I would guess most gamers out there don’t care about the NES and that most games on the console to them are bad aside from a few well known titles. Think Super Mario or Mega Man. I’m far on the other end of the spectrum where I believe most NES games are good and worth looking at, with only a small handful of games that I don’t enjoy. Chubby Cherub has the reputation of a bad game from my view of things, and look, I totally get it. I’m not going to go to bat for Chubby Cherub and defend it as some misunderstood masterpiece, far from it. What I will try to outline here is both some context and gameplay ideas that are at least interesting.

The history of this game begins with Obake no Q-taro, a defunct Japanese manga written by Fujiko Fujio. Originally running from 1964-1973, it features an obake named Q-taro who likes to fly around and cause mischief. An obake is like a ghost in Japanese culture. I’m not well versed in all of this, but I think this is enough to carry the idea. There were three separate anime series all roughly two years in length beginning in 1965 with the first series and ending in 1987 with the last. There was also a full-length anime film in 1986, and a much shorter film the following year. Unless there is some future reboot in store, that’s the last the world has seen of Q-taro.

Obake no Q Tarou: Wanwan Panic is the Famicom game based on the manga. The game was developed by TOSE and published by Bandai. It was released in Japan in December 1985. The NES version of the game was renamed to Chubby Cherub, also published by Bandai in October 1986. Gameplay is identical between the two versions, but the localized version replaced Q-taro with a flying angel.

A weird choice for a protagonist.

This is a good time to talk about the difference between 3-screw and 5-screw NES carts. Early cartridges were held together by five screws, one in each corner and one in the middle. These are small, flathead screws so you can take the game apart easily if you really want to. Sometime in 1987, Nintendo redesigned the cartridge shells to have interlocking tabs on the top of each cartridge beside the end label, removing the need for two of the corner screws. Some early 3-screw carts still have flathead screws before they were replaced with the hexagonal security screws used in Nintendo cartridges for many years. The reason I bring this up now is that Chubby Cherub is one of earliest NES games so it is a 5-screw cart. In fact, Chubby Cherub was not reprinted after the switch to 3-screw cartridges so it is only available as a 5-screw cart. There are only a few NES games like this.

Chubby Cherub is a side-scrolling action game. Our hero is but a simple angel who just wants to eat delicious food and help his friends. Alas, this cruel, evil world stands in the way of helping his friends. They are trapped in buildings or held hostage by a burglar and only Chubby Cherub can save them. To get to them, simply work your way from left to right to reach the end of each level while avoiding all kinds of dangers like smoke, birds, and barking dogs. You must complete all twelve levels to beat Chubby Cherub.

The controls take a little getting used to. Walking is easy enough. Just press Left or Right to move. You can tell right away that this is an early NES game because the B button is used for jumping. Yuck. Jumps are loopy and slow, and he always jumps the same height. You have full horizontal control while jumping. However, if either you walk off a ledge or are positioned inside a floor tile at the apex of your jump, you will be locked into place horizontally as you slowly fall to solid ground. Hold Down and press B when standing to fall in this same manner through high walkways. If you are holding B at the top of your jump, you begin flying in place. Now you can move in all eight directions. While flying you can travel freely through everything except completely solid blocks, and you move faster to boot. However, you can’t fly forever so you need to keep that in mind. The A button fires what the game manual calls the Gau-Gau cannon. I have no idea what that is supposed to be, but it looks to me like a heart-shaped vomit attack. You have to collect ammo before you can shoot and it is only effective against a few enemy types.

This is way too mischievous.

There is a lot of information on the status bar at the top of the screen. On the left side, you see your score at the top and hearts underneath it which denote your extra lives. In the middle is your power meter followed by how much Gau you have and the current stage number. On the right side is the level timer and the condition for earning bonus points.

The most important facet of Chubby Cherub is managing your power meter. It decreases as you play, acting as its own timer. Run out of power and you lose a life. You can restore a portion of the power meter by eating food that is strewn throughout the stages. This mechanic is better known from Adventure Island. Flying uses up power more quickly, and you have to maintain a certain amount of power to remain airborne. Now flying is the preferred way to get around in Chubby Cherub, so the pacing in the game is dictated by how often you can find food in order to keep flying. It turns out you can get through a lot of the game just by flying.

Dogs are the most dangerous enemy in the game. Q-taro in the manga is deathly afraid of dogs, so they pose the largest threat in Chubby Cherub by design. There are two different sizes of dogs and their movement patterns and aggression vary mostly by color. Recognizing these patterns and learning by experience are crucial to survival. The worst kind of dogs are the ones that bark. Dog barks are represented as icons with letters inside of them. Small dogs launch B’s for “bark” while big bulldogs fire two W’s for “wan-wan,” the Japanese onomatopoeia for dog barking. It’s a clever touch, and I’m proud to be able to use the word onomatopoeia in this blog in the proper context! Anyway, dog barks are aimed shots that move faster than you, and they are deadly to the touch. Certain groupings of dogs are among the most difficult parts of the game.

Why does the food float so high?

There are some items to help you in Chubby Cherub. The aforementioned food is all over the place, refilling your power meter and giving you between 10 and 50 points per piece depending on type. Lollipops are a much larger food item that gives you 100 points and four shots of the Gau-Gau cannon. You can only hold up to 9 Gau in reserve, but this is your one weapon to fight back against the dogs since they are the only enemy hurt by Gau. Sometimes collecting a food item generates a P icon above it. Collecting it not only gives you 200 points, but it also restores power and makes you invincible for several seconds. The angel blinks during this period and you can move through any enemy freely with one catch. Getting hit by a dog bark causes it to bounce off you harmlessly but you lose any remaining invincibility. A good strategy is to use your invincibility frames to get right up in a dog’s face to hit it with Gau.

There are other enemies present that are not affected by Gau. There are crows, birds, smoke, and balloons that defeat you with a simple touch. Balloons are the weirdest enemy concept I’ve seen in a while. What did Chubby Cherub ever do to them? There are also Chow Chow dogs but they aren’t affected by Gau and don’t bark at you. I don’t get that either! These enemies have their own patterns to deal with, some with multiple patterns. It’s a dangerous world out there.

All levels share a similar structure. About halfway through each stage you will encounter a rectangular stop sign. This freezes the scrolling and the objective is to collect all food on screen to make a special item appear on the left. Collect that item to get 500 points and then you can continue through the rest of the stage. Your friend needs to be rescued at the end of the level, and this is accomplished in one of two ways. Most stages end with a building or two and a large amount of food in front. Each piece of food opens the window above it when you grab it. Your friend is randomly hidden behind one of these windows and finding him or her ends the stage. But beware, there are also two aggressive dogs hidden behind these windows too. The manual gives good advice not to collect the food while moving upward because if there’s a dog hidden there you will run into it right away and lose a life. Every third stage ends in a simple boss fight with a burglar. He walks in from the right to the center of the screen and begins tossing bombs all over the place. The burglar drops a dog bone on his walk to the middle of the screen, and you need to grab this and throw it at the burglar with A. This causes dogs to appear from the left that scare the burglar away, saving your friend.

People should not be allowed to have all these bombs.

The boss battle with the burglar also indicates a change to the bonus point incentive. Every group of three levels out of the twelve has a unique way to earn bonus points at the end of the level. In stages 1-3, you earn 40 points for every piece of food eaten. You get a bonus for time remaining in stages 4-6. Levels 7-9 give you 200 points for each dog you knock out with Gau. Stages 10-12 give you 200 points for every hidden jewel you find, which is a special item unique to those stages. I think it’s a nice way to switch up your secondary objective.

The stage timer is also worth mentioning. Unlike a standard counter, it represents time on a clock. Stages start at 8:00am and you lose a life if you don’t finish the level by 8:00pm. The minutes tick by quickly, which is unrealistic given how slow you move in the game. The one neat thing about the clock is that every hour the background color palette changes a little bit to help indicate the passing of time. It’s something you might not recognize right away while playing. I think it’s clever given the age of this game.

There are some special areas in the game. Later levels have factories in them with smoke stacks. The puffs of smoke that rise out of these are deadly. Sometimes a ring of smoke will come out instead of a puff. Be very careful because this is still deadly if you touch the top of it, but if you touch the bottom of it instead, it will carry you with it up into heaven. This area is littered with cakes that give you a whopping 500 points each as well as crows that try to knock you down. This is typically a single screen bonus area, but every now and then heaven scrolls to the right. There are more cakes and you can really rack up points here, but even better is that you can bypass much or all of the stage below if you can keep going. It’s not clear to me what triggers the scrolling heaven, but it’s super useful. I have read you can get it to scroll if you collect the cakes from left to right, but that didn’t seem to work when I tried it. I think the trick is that you have to go into heaven before 9:00am, but I couldn’t trigger it enough times to narrow it down.

Up, up, and away!

On the flip side, there is also a hell area. Falling down a pit sends you to hell instead of dying like you would in most games, but I’m not exactly sure you’re better off this way. Hell is a single screen level completely shrouded in darkness. You begin on the left side stripped of both your power meter and any Gau you brought in. There are two chow chows above you, a regular dog on the bottom, and a bulldog blocking the white exit door on the upper right. There’s a lollipop in the middle to give you some Gau. You can’t fly here so you have to jump on invisible blocks in order to knock out the bulldog and reach the exit. Of course, the bulldog barks at you when you get close, but at least the small dog keeps quiet. Dying in hell simply resets the room with no loss of life, so you are forced to keep trying until you can make it out of there. Or reset the console, I guess. It’s a tough room but the layout is consistent. Eventually the enemies will cooperate and let you through. If you play well enough, you shouldn’t ever see hell anyway.

Chubby Cherub is a tough game. You begin the game with three lives and there are no continues. You earn an extra life at 10,000 points and again for every 20,000 points scored after that. The twelve stages are pretty short but they are full of enemies that kill you in one hit. You earn points at a slow rate and therefore earn lives slowly too. This is a game that takes a lot of practice and a fair amount of luck to beat.

This was my first time playing Chubby Cherub. I collect Famicom a little bit and I had a cart of Obake no Q Tarou: Wanwan Panic before I recently sold it. The Famicom title is very cheap, even for international buyers, but Chubby Cherub is much more expensive. Today it sells for around $70 cart only, and you have to spend a few hundred dollars if you want a complete in box copy. I bought my cart on eBay in 2014 for $30 plus shipping, which was a little under market value then. It’s costly because it was a low print run released before the NES really exploded in popularity.

Seriously, how are you supposed to get through?

It felt like I really struggled to beat this game when it only took me a little over a week to get it done. There’s a high level of difficulty right off the bat. On the very first screen, there is a highly active dog roaming around and you move so slow that death is likely for the first time player. Barking dogs are challenging to avoid anyway let alone the first few times you encounter them. Even with flying all the time, the first few levels are still hard. I found the difficulty decreased in the middle stages before ramping back up again at the end. Heaven shows up in those middle stages which is a great way to get some extra lives. At least then you get more of a chance at the later levels. It might have taken me 20-30 tries to beat the game. My longplay video was the first time I beat it. I had a few unrecorded runs that reached the final level, including one where I lost my last life to the burglar at the end. Sadly, there is no true ending to the game. It continues on to Stage 13, but the later levels are identical to the earlier ones. Chubby Cherub will loop for as long as you can keep going, but clearing only one loop is enough to consider it finished.

Chubby Cherub has a flow to it that I can appreciate. This is getting into spoiler territory here, both this and the next paragraph, so even if you don’t care (and why would you?) you’ve been warned. The game is broken up nicely into the groups of three stages. The first three stages are the introductory levels where you learn all about the dogs and basics of flying and all that. You may even get your first taste of hell in Stage 3. The next three levels give you no Gau at all, but also there are no barking dogs to deal with either. This was the breather I really needed and I beat all these levels on my first try. Stages 7-9 is like the advanced version of Stages 1-3. There are plenty of dogs here to deal with, including several in a row that bark. There are fewer food items here so you also need to cope with not flying in some spots. It’s a big jump in difficulty and Stage 8 was a hurdle for a few days. The designers had one last nasty trick for the final set of stages. I mentioned in the bonus section that these levels have jewels that give you bonus points. The jewels are hidden and you need to touch invisible spots to make them appear. Then you collect the jewels to make the food appear. This is the only way to get food in these levels, and what’s worse is that some jewels don’t reveal any food at all. At least the jewels and their triggers are always in the same places. It’s just mean because you are used to flying all over and now you have to switch gears and play it more like a platformer with worse movement just to survive.

Pray you never have to experience this screen.

I developed a few techniques in order to beat the game. One annoying thing I noticed right away is that any dog knocked out with Gau will fall off the screen but you can still get hurt by them in this state. At first I thought this was a programming bug, but it turns out this has a big benefit. Defeated dogs technically stay active and you can get hit them again with Gau for 1000 extra points. If I lined up with the bottom of the dog, I could sometimes hit it twice while falling. Now you do have to be careful not to use up all your Gau for when you need it to survive, but using excess Gau can net you a lot of points and extra lives that are a big help. I also figured out a consistent way of taking out barking dogs. Their AI is set up so that they won’t bark at you if you are directly above or below them. The trick is that you come at them from above and line up so that you hit the top of the dog with Gau. If you come at them from below, this trick does not work. You can also bait a moving, barking dog above you to fall off a ledge so that you can take them out quickly before they land and bark directly into your face. The last bit of advice is that you should always quick kill the burglar. As soon as he enters the screen, you should be flying already. Swoop around behind him and pick up the bone, and then let it loose as soon as he stops walking. You will still have to dodge some bombs, but this fight is a lot worse if you play it safe.

Chubby Cherub is an aged platformer that doesn’t hold up well today. It’s slow paced, for one. The controls are not intuitive. The graphics are basic and don’t vary much over the course of the game, and you need experience to tell which parts are solid blocks and which ones are passthrough ledges. You are at a major disadvantage against the most prevalent enemy type in the game. That hell area is just plain evil. Now it’s not all terrible. There are only a few simple songs in the game, but I must admit, they are catchier than they should be. I will give Chubby Cherub credit for introducing some hidden complexity to some of its systems that I wasn’t expecting, including the special ways to boost your score. Both discovering and exploiting these morsels of assistance was rewarding and breathed some life into this otherwise lackluster title. I’m not saying you should play this game, but even primitive games by NES standards can have some good ideas worth illuminating.

#72 – Chubby Cherub